Thomas Nagel's "Mind and Cosmos--why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false

“The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem…but that it invades our understanding of the entire cosmos…I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.” Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

What? An eminent philosopher of the mind, Thomas Nagel, a professed atheist, taking up the theistic argument that “the materialist, neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false”–who wood-a thunk it?

In a nutshell, Nagel argues that current belief that there is a physical theory of everything–a theory that includes human mentality and values–is unbelievable:

I find this view [reductive materialism and neo-Darwinism] antecedently unbelievable–a heroic triumph of ideological theory over common sense. p. 136 (quotes, unless otherwise specified, are from “Mind and Cosmos”).

This disbelief is founded on the following propositions:

  • physical science cannot account for the incredibly unlikely beginning
    of life;

  • physical science and the neo-Darwinian model cannot account for the
    development of consciousness;

  • physical science and the neo-Darwinian model cannot account for the
    development of cognition from consciousness;

  • physical science and the neo-Darwinian model cannot account for the
    role of value in human activity.

The fundamental difficulty with the currently accepted physical picture is, according to Nagel, that the ways in which tries to account for mind, in all its aspects, are inadequate:

The first way is to deny that the mental is an irreducible aspect of reality, either (a) by holding that the mental can be identified with some aspect of the physical, such as patterns of behavior or patterns of neural activity, or (b) by denying that the mental is part of reality at all, being some kind of illusion (but then, illusion to whom?). The second way is to deny that the mental requires a scientific explanation through some new conception of the natural order, because either (c) we can regard it as a mere fluke or accident, an unexplained extra property of certain physical organisms – or else (d) we can believe that it has an explanation, but one that belongs not to science but to theology, in other words that mind has been added to the physical world in the course of evolution by divine intervention. Thomas Nagel. The Core of Mind and Cosmos (NY Times Opinionator)

Nagel rejects divine intervention, both for the presence of mind and for the beginning of life. Instead he proposes a teleological principle that operates to achieve values (undefined) that include conscousness and cognition; mutations that work to such an end are preferred, that is, have a higher probability. Nagel terms the failure of materialism and neo-Darwinism to account for the above “a materialism of the gaps”.

The arguments Nagel gives to support the above propositions are involved. Were I not already convinced of his propositions, I would find his arguments (which I’m not going to present here in detail) unconvincing. I invite the reader to go to the book, or if you don’t want to spend the bucks, look at Chapter 4 of the book, on Cognition (it’s available online for free–use the link).

Finally, I wonder why the addition of a “teleological principle” is not more ad hoc than that of a creating God. It does seem to be the case that for many atheists, their faith (or non-faith?) cannot be shaken.


I agree that the Mind/Body relationship is a key factor in our understanding reality. It is the basis of the Western dualistic world view. Nagel as a good philosopher maintains this worldview, while rejecting God. Most other atheists say they reject dualism in favor of materialistic monism, although dualism is so ingrained in their thinking that that this is not really true.

Most Christians support the Western dualistic world view, even though they reject dualism. Monism leads to pantheism. I find it a crime that Christians do not take the Trinity seriously enough to try to develop the triune world view needed to save Western science and faith.

I agree with the substance of your comment, but I’m unclear on one point you raised. Although as a Catholic I believe in the Trinity, I don’t see how a Trinitarian doctrine could be used to justify soul/body dualism. Could you please expand on that? Thanks.


Thank you for your question.

Generally we see a person as mind/body. After hearing a lecture at Harvard Divinity School a long time ago on this question, I asked, “Where does the Spirit fit in?”

I was told that the Spirit was a part of the Mind, which I found to be a very unsatisfying in light of the writing of Paul who concentrates on the Spirit as the essence of humans. I see humans as a triune beings, body. mind, and spirit or will.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not used to justify Western dualism, but Western dualism is used to force a Triune reality into a flawed dualist model. What we need to do is stop forcing reality into a dualistic model and starting rebuilding it into a triune one.

The down side is giving up 2000+ years of dualism. The upside is solving the mind/body problem and embracing the full Christian model of reality.

Thanks for your reply. I see now what you were saying. It brings to mind an excerpt from an audiobook by Fr. Groeschel on prayer (I’m sorry–I forget the exact title). He talks of St. Bonaventure in which he depicts the mind in a Trinitarian way: Will, Intellect, and Memory. I’ll try to find the reference.
Added later: I can’t find the Groeschel audiobook, but I see that in websites on St. Bonaventure’s “Journey of the Mind into God” there is discussed “will, intellect and memory”.


Thank you for your comment.

The fact is that St. Augustine used Trinitarian models found in nature and the mind in his book, On the Trinity, which established the Western model of the Trinity. People are familiar with his other important books, The Confessions and The City of God, but not On the Trinity which is at least as important.

St. Bonaventure was a follower of Augustine. I would not put the will into the mind. The will belongs with the spirit in the triune model of the person as body, mind, and spirit, or physical, rational, and spiritual. If you want more detail I will send you my book, The GOD Who RELATES.

You brought up memory. From science we know that memory is a learned pattern of nueron firings in a sequence. It is also know that a person can change his memories over time and they don’t remain static as one ages. Certain memories are reinforced and highlighted, others are rarely remembered and stay pretty dormant.

Question: Does an individual’s memories die with his brain when the brain dies or do they become part of the soul?


Augustine does not use the soul as part of his anthropology. He uses body, mind, and spirit. Memories are part of the mind.

It is not that the person does not cease to exist physically, but that the person lives in the Mind and Spirit of God.

But does memories live on after the brain dies? Neuroscience has shown that memories are learned patterns of neuron firings in specific regions of the brain. The brain is not like video recorder memory. Memories don’t remain static and can be reinforced, highlighted, and changed. But once the neurons dies the memory no longer exists. This has been shown extensively in living stroke victims.

So does the soul somehow have a record of a person’s memory after the person dies?

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I read City of God about forty years ago. How does this book relate to the latest results in neuroscience in the study of how the brain remembers things -memories?


I should have qualified this more carefully. I was referring to On the Trinity as indicated.

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Hi Patrick
A personal opinion based on my personal experiences.
My notebook has a 32 bits processor, which means 32 parallel connections for data transfer and works at a clock frequency of some 3 gigahertz. What counts are the input- and output-actions and these are in the range of some 300 megahertz. My brain is also a digital computer, with biological hardware, working on a frequency of less than 100 hertz on input- and output-actions and up to 1,000 million parallel connections for data transfer. In addition, my brain has no Windows operating system which consumes over 95% of the processor capacity. So my brain is possibly faster than my notebook.
If I touch some very hot object, then my nerves start sending pulses to my brain. My brain interprets these pulses, sends pulses to my arm to withdraw my hand immediately en sends a message to my consciousness to inform me to watch out.
My brain handles all body signals: pain, hunger, thirst, the signals from my senses, stores these signals somewhere and somehow in my braincells. Some signals are not relayed to my consciousness. Among these are signals that control my temperature, the food processing, equilibrium, and so on.
My brain can only store the signals it can handle. My brain is unable to handle emotions like fear, joy, hate, love, sorrow. You are able to remember body signals and emotions. The difference between them is that you can remember body signals but not feel them again, while remembering an emotion might provoke to feel it again. I remember the pain caused by kidney stones, but I don’t feel the pain again. I also remember the sorrow caused by the loss of my little brother over 70 years ago and writing this makes me feel the sorrow again. The brain is not able to store those emotions.
The soul stores both, the body signals, the emotions, the thoughts, everything. You can find testimonies
about this on the site IANDS - the most reliable source of information on NDEs. People, revived after a state of clinical death, said that their whole life had passed before their eyes, when they died. I interpret this becoming aware of their memory in their soul.
It seems that the soul is omniscient of past, present and future. Leakage of information from the soul to
consciousness occurs sometimes and results then in clairvoyance and telepathy.

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